PC Convery leads the celebrations at the Tour De Conamara
When Sean Kerr and Tommie McGrath swapped two feet for two wheels, cycling began in the Maghera area and Carn Wheelers was born. It has now grown into one of the most vibrant clubs around. Michael McMullan asked Club PRO PC Convery about the club's growth...
Michael McMullan: Well PC, when and how did Carn Wheelers come into existence? Was there a club there before that?
PC Convery: Initially two local men Tommie McGrath and Sean Kerr would have cycled together as a pastime before the official formation of Carn Wheelers. Both were marathon runners and opted for two wheels in between runs. Sean was inspired to take up cycling following Stephen Roche’s win in The Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and the World Championship in 1987. Sean was a member of East Tyrone Cycling Club at that time and took part in races and time trials and had several podium finishes.
There were a couple of local cycling clubs - Moyola Cycle Club and the South Derry Wheelers which were in existence prior to Carn Wheelers. There were differences in structure and affiliation and there was an identified need to form a local club. Moyola Cycle Club was formed in the 1980s but the membership waned in the 1990s and cyclists then joined other local clubs like East Tyrone and Bann Valley.
Carn Wheelers registered as an official cycling club with Cycling Ireland in 2005/06. Sean also designed the first kit which was worn for several years after. In late 2006/07 the official launch of the new club kit was held in Walsh’s Hotel, Maghera.
M McM: How did they know there was an appetite for a club?
PC: The founding members were Tommie McGrath, Pat Purvis, Nigel Henry and Sean Kerr.
The first official AGM was held in 2008 in the Naiscoil in Maghera with around 20 members at the meeting and Pat Purvis was elected as first chairman.
M McM: Cycling wasn't as nearly as popular back then as it is now. Was it more about exercise and leisure at that time or was there also a racing element?
PC: Yes, in the formative years it was about leisure cycles with the group leaving Maghera on a Sunday morning, and coming home together a few hours later tired but having enjoyed plenty of craic. The club was able to break into racing groups at that time as well. It was a couple of years after that before we held our first open races. The first club racing program of Time Trials (TT) and road racing was established in 2010 after an increased number of Carn Wheelers started to race at Bann Valley and East Tyrone.
The first individual to race was Gerry Kelly at Bann Valley and Gerry was also the first Carn Wheeler to win a road race in an East Tyrone club race in May 2009. Barry Russell was the first Carn Wheeler to get a podium place in an open race with second place at Phoenix GP in February 2010 and since then there have been many more wins and podiums. The very first Carn Classic open race was held on Sunday, March 20, 2011 in Tobermore.
Padraig Dougan (our current chairman) was chairman then and it took place on Wood Road course. Carn Wheelers used Tobermore United Football Club as sign on and prize giving.
M McM: I remember cycling with the club for a few years around 2009. I noticed the club really starting to grow. What would you put that down to?
PC: The popularity of cycling had started to take off all over with Cycling Ireland membership also on the rise. A large number of retired sports people were also looking for some form of exercise that was sociable and also those who liked that bit of competition got involved in racing. With more people out cycling, races started to increase in numbers all over and someone once said cycling was the new golf. The likes of the Giro d'Italia, which was held in Ireland for the first time in 2014, promoted cycling and encouraged people to get out on their bikes.
In April 2009, Wendy Houvenaghel, linked with the club on their weekly Sunday morning cycle.
A native of Upperlands, Wendy returned home following her Olympic success winning the silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She also won gold in the same year in the 2008 Track Cycling World Championships. The club got a major seal of approval when she joined the club as an honorary member.
The aim was to raise money to help her pursue her Olympic dream in 2012 where she was aiming to improve on the silver medal she won in Beijing.
An invitation was sent out from Carn Wheelers to cyclists everywhere to join them and have the opportunity to meet with Wendy both before and after the cycle, and to cycle along with her on a planned route from Maghera to Portstewart and return. As a result, Wendy gave local cycling a much needed boost and encouraged others to take up the sport.
M McM: There was very much a strong 'leave nobody behind' mentality to the cycling. Is that still the same?
PC: Yes that was and still is a strong motto in the club, although there are different groups within the club out cycling the club still promotes the leaving no one behind. All new cyclists are encouraged, but it is advisable to cycle on your own and gradually increase the miles before joining a group. The group cycles are well-organised and the route is usually agreed and communicated in advance.
Over the years there have been many organised cycles and in 2008 Carn Wheelers also organised a charity cycle to Donegal and return.
M McM: The Tour of South Derry is synonymous with the club. When did it begin?
PC: The first Tour of South Derry was held in October 2008 and there were 190 cyclists who took part in that event. Cyclists came from as far away as Cork to participate in the cycle at that time. In 2015 there was a peak entry of 530 cyclists and in recent years there are between 350 and 400 participants from cycling clubs all over as well as other cyclists who are not affiliated with any club.
The Tour of South Derry is usually the last Sportive of the cycling calendar, traditionally held on the second Sunday of October. It is a very well-run sportive which is very well marshalled and there is a choice of two routes to suit all abilities. The refreshments before and after are very well received.
The event has always been affiliated with MacMillan Cancer Relief and has been a huge fundraiser and since the tour began. Carn Wheelers raised over £100,000 over the years for this worthy cause. The club are grateful to Mickey Donnelly, who has been the main organiser and contact with MacMillan since 2008. Unfortunately their Mid-Ulster branch has now folded, so the club will seek a new charity partner for forthcoming events.
M McM: There has been a lot of success - the likes of Cathir Doyle and Marc Heaney going to cycle at a high level and also the mountain-biking. Did it come from the early years of the underage cycling?
PC: Carn Wheelers always had an ethos on cycling for all ages, gender and abilities. There was a focus on youth development and as some of the parents were actively involved the children developed an interest and this was identified early in the club’s development.
The club had a group that were interested in the MTB scene and the parents thought it was a safe environment to introduce youth to biking, it provided the youth with a chance to build their bike handling skills and because there were MTB races they were able to add a bit of competition. Although the numbers involved are small compared to other sports we continue to have some very good young cyclists racing at the minute on the road, MTB, Cyclocross and the track, and some have won national and provincial titles.
The first MTB race was held in Davagh Forest in June 2010, long before the trails were built. Carn Wheelers members developed a course after many weeks of hard graft wheeling stones and cutting back branches to have the tracks ready and the competition has continued each year since.
M McM: The likes of the Cycle around Ireland trek last year has been a huge mark on the club and there are many sportives. Is the club as vibrant as ever?
PC: Yes the Cycle around Ireland last year was very well supported and raised nearly £14,000 for STEPS mental health charity. It was a brilliant achievement for the eight cyclists who took part and who pushed themselves to the limit cycling over 1,300 miles in just over 64 hours to support this worthy cause in their community.
This year we have some members who had organised to attend events which unfortunately were cancelled, we had a number of members booked to complete in the Joe Barr endurance event and we would have had racing up and running at this stage.
The race calendar had just been published a couple of weeks before lockdown and the very popular Carn Classic road Race was due to take place on 5 April 2020 but unfortunately had to be cancelled.
We would say the club is as vibrant as ever, our membership unlike some other clubs has remained stable and if events were on we would have members taking part in the sportives all over Ireland. Leisure cycling is on the increase and last year members took part in the Tour de Conamara, Westport Gran Fondo, the Ring of Clare and the Tour de Boyne Valley as well as local club sportives.
Following feedback from club members Carn Wheelers launched a new club kit in March 2019. It was a move away from the traditional green and black which had been in existence since the club started. The new colour was introduced by former chairman Ali Gribbon as it more visible on the road to motorists and should make cycling safer for all.
M McM: How have you been dealing with the lockdown? Is solo cycling giving people an avenue to manage their mental health - get out, stay fit and healthy? It has a big part to play.
PC: Cycling is an excellent pastime for physical and mental health and the social aspect of the group cycles is important especially when the cycle takes in a coffee stop on the route as it gives individuals an opportunity to socialise.
The club has tried to be at the forefront of trying to encourage our members to continue cycling but of course following the rules of social distancing, it has been difficult for many who have had events cancelled or had been training for the racing season. We are no different than any other sports and with the recent good weather members are getting lots of solo miles in, each of our groups are also keeping in touch with each other via Facebook and WhatsApp groups which is also very important. This means that we can check in on each other until we can get back out cycling in groups. There have been no group cycles since early March and people are instead encouraged to cycle solo.
Thankfully the roads have been relatively quiet as there was less traffic and the good weather in April has encouraged many to build up their miles on the bike.
Last year we launched a very successful Couch to 50K programme which ran on consecutive Monday nights during the summer. It was very popular and over 40 cyclists participated under the guidance of experienced club cyclists. We had anticipated that it would run again this year but this was not possible due to the current lockdown due to the Covid-19.
Cyclists have been training over the winter to prepare for the summer season of races, time trials, sportives, endurance events and other competitions. There is a saying within the club which is 'winter miles = summer smiles' so it is unfortunate that all the events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless cycling is an excellent sport for physical and mental well-being as well as social contact. It is sport which continues to develop and the future of Carn Wheelers is looking very promising.
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